Mt. Nelson – Yet Another Endurance Contest
This summer, my wife Janice and I started climbing together after a lapse of some 14 years. We shared outings to The Pinnacles, Rogers Pass, and Saddle Mt. near Nakusp. So when the kids went off to visit their aunties in late August, we decided this would be another opportunity to steal away for a climb. This time, though, we picked a more ambitious goal, Mt. Nelson, the huge, tilted-top slag heap that looms behind Invermere, a peak I had coveted for some 25 years.
Karla and Julia having jetted off to Vancouver, we departed in the Land Cruiser for Invermere and points west on Saturday afternoon, August 19th. It was raining when we came out of Heidi’s Restaurant in Cranbrook at 6:00pm, but the real stunner came when we drove north on Highway 93/ 95 and got a view of the entire Hughes Range in the Rockies plastered with freshies to below treeline. Somewhat discouraged, we drove on to Invermere, then up Toby Creek past the Panorama ski area, and onto the Delphine FSR. We car camped on the road near a repaired washout that was said to mark the trailhead for Mt. Nelson.
Sunday morning, the weather did not look encouraging, and we could see fresh snow above through gaps in the cloud cover. Setting our sights lower, we drove up the Paradise Mine road to a pass at 8,000′ with the intention of hiking along Paradise Ridge. Deciding it was unsporting to drive on the road continuing up Paradise Ridge, we followed this road on foot in windy, white-out conditions until it gave way to a mountain bike track. As the weather improved, we continued along over five bumps of increasing height, reaching the last (485-910; 8,990′) in one hour. We continued on to Watch Peak (8,829′) and had a desultory go at the south slopes of Trafalgar Mtn., east of Mt. Nelson, before retracing our steps to the truck by 4:20pm.
After a tasty meal of fish and chips at the Panorama golf course clubhouse, we returned to our previous car-camp site. As much of the snow had melted, we decided to have a go at Mt. Nelson the next day.
The accounts of Mt. Nelson offer some interesting stories. It was first climbed in September 1910 by C.D. Ellis, who soloed it in 12 1 /2 hours return from the Paradise Mine. For more recent records of suffering, read the article by Doris Corbiel in the 1988 Karabiner describing her ascent of the peak with Hamish Mulch. Their “famous last words that day” were “only a few hours from here”. Or you might want to consult the description of the access trail in Hikes around Invermere & the Columbia River Valley, by Cameron and Gunn. One of the authors writes that after the trail leaves the valley floor, You then begin one of the most inhumane climbs I’ve ever done”.
Cheered by this information (I wanted to see how bad the trail really was), we set out Monday morning, August 21st, at 7:00am with light packs and no ice axes. The climb itself was billed as a mere scramble, with the vein-bursting 6,560′ elevation gain and frequent bad weather accounting for the recurring failures on this peak billed by Hamie as the twentieth highest summit in BC’s Interior Ranges.
The first part of the trail is, as the young like to say, sketchy, being marked at its start by a few ribbons just upstream from the repaired washout where we camped. With Janice in the lead, we leaned forward, hauled on tree roots, and worked our way up to the first convenient rest stop in 90min (go, girl, go!). Continuing north toward our objective, we followed the ridge crest, took a fainter right fork, and contoured down into Nelson Creek meadows in two hours. So far, so good, although the directions for exiting the ridge were a little vague.
Here, we lost the faint trail, but continued over alps and boulder fields toward the upper basin of Nelson Creek as per the directions in Cameron and Gunn’s book. On our left rose the ramparts of Mt. Sultana, and on the basin’s right side was the long south ridge of Mt. Nelson climbed by Hamish and Doris. Passing a tarn and the last vestiges of the Nelson Glacier, we gazed up at the tourist route on the 1,800′ southwest face and asked ourselves “Where is it?”
Noticing glissade tracks in the snow below the face, we made for them and, sure enough, an obvious gully just right of a prominent snow tongue offered easy scrambling. We continued on this for hundreds of feet before exiting right on a ramp and then angling up and left to begin a long, enervating scree pull. As we made glacial progress, sliding backwards in the nasty stuff, I kept gazing over at Sultana, which, at a mere 10,564′, was still way above us. My despair was lightened by the obvious descent tracks in the scree; at least going down would be fun. We persevered, following the tracks on this open face until they led us to a solid limestone chimney, which in 15′ gave onto the mighty south ridge. Thinking there was still a lot of climbing left, we continued a few hundred feet on easy, low angle rock, climbed 60′ of steeper, firmer rock to the right of a rotten gully, and suddenly I could see the impressive aluminum summit cross only a short walk ahead. We had just climbed the summit tower without realizing it.
Reaching the top at 1:50pm (6hrs 50min up), we basked in the warm sun under partly-cloudy skies. I opened the spring-loaded door in the cross, constructed and brought up by the Kloos family in 1986, and took out the chockfull summit register. Although the first climb this season wasn’t until July 27th, we were the thirteenth party. We noted Doris’ and Hamie’s entry from July 10th, 1988. Unable to find the trail from the Delphine FSR, they had bushwhacked up Nelson Creek to camp below the south ridge. The next day, they followed the ridge in snow and poor visibility to the summit, finding a heavy, abandoned cross en route (sounds like South America). Perhaps the most interesting summit entry was from January 1st, 1999, when a party enjoyed 25 Celsius temperatures on top. Deciding we had nothing to complain about, we spent 40min enjoying the views of Assiniboine, Panorama ski area, Truce, Cauldron, the Commander Group, Farnham, and many other old friends.
At 2:30, we headed down, retraced our steps, and reached the upper basin in thr 25min. Now off the mountain, we meandered along, keeping just to the right or west of Nelson Creek and finding cairns and an intermittent trail that led us easily back to the meadows. Here, some flagging I had left helped us locate the trail where it entered the trees. All continued in a pleasant manner until the very long descent of the steep section, part of which I shuffled through sideways because of aching toenails.
At 6:40pm, with plenty of daylight left, we reached the truck after a 4hr 10min descent, rounding off an 11½ hour day. I unfolded a chair for Janice, into which she slumped, and I handed her a Coke. She took a sip, looked up, and said, “You really challenged me this time.”
GUIDE: Hikes around Invermere & the Columbia River Valley, by Aaron Cameron and Matt Gunn, published by Rocky Mountain Books
Map: 82K18 Toby Creek